The Lads travel to Bedfordshire this weekend for what looks to be a tricky fixture against Luton Town. The hosts have a decent recent record at their Kenilworth Road home, but with the club pushing ahead with plans for a new stadium the trip could be one of the last the Red and White Army gets to make to what is an intriguing and sometimes maligned ground.
Whilst it may lack legroom and plush facilities however, the romantics will perhaps be sorry to see it go. If and when the Hatters do move they will be saying goodbye to a place packed full of character, an ‘old school’ venue that might hinder progress in some respects but is a welcome reminder of how football used to be. Sunderland have will always have one or two fond memories of it too, despite some of the earliest trips being a total write-off.
Having gone there for FA Cup ties in 1907 and 1937, the latter whilst en route to winning the competition, the first league meetings between the two teams were between 1955-56 and 1957-58. The three games in those seasons saw Luton winning by a one-sided aggregate of 21-5, and whilst the next visit was an entertaining 3-3 draw in 1960 it wasn’t until nearly two years later that Sunderland first enjoyed a win.
Victories have continued at a steady pace ever since though, including in the next three, and in more recent times the side has managed to pull off some important successes.
This was a classic bottom-of-the-table ‘six-pointer’ played on Luton’s infamous plastic pitch, with the conditions made even harder due to the snow and rain that was coming down at kick off.
Denis Smith had at least been boosted by the return of Marco Gabbiadini to the bench after injury, and by the time he had to come on as an early replacement for Brian Mooney the game had already sparked into life.
Gordon Armstrong put Sunderland ahead when he fired past future teammate Alec Chamberlain, but the scores were levelled shortly after through Graham Rodger – Mooney soon limping off in the aftermath.
The weather deteriorated again in the second half, but Gabbers had already got back up to speed and he created the second when he pulled the ball across for Colin Pascoe to turn home.
It sparked joy amongst the pockets of travelling supporters that had circumagitated the supposed away fans ban, and the final whistle was warmly greeted too; defeat could have confirmed relegation but the side had done enough to survive for another day.
Smith’s side did eventually suffer the drop, but under Peter Reid the club were back on the up and they achieved the first away win of what would be a promotion winning campaign thanks to goals from new boy John Mullin and former Hatter Phil Gray.
Whereas in 1991 the Lads were wearing their popular blue and white Hummel change kit they were now in yellow. One thing that hadn’t changed was the influence of Kevin Ball, who had a pivotal role in both performances and put the ball through for Mullin’s well-taken opener shortly after the break.
Richard Ord then became the latest Sunderland player to struggle from the spot when he had a penalty well saved by Luton goalkeeper Tony Feuer, but whilst the team were on a bad run in that regard, they were still dangerous in open play and wrapped things up through Gray’s deft lob from the edge of the box.
Promotion had once again been secured by the next time Sunderland went to Kenilworth Road in search of league points, but the Championship title was still up for grabs on what was the final day of the season. That would come down to results elsewhere, but under Roy Keane the Lads were determined to go out on a high either way.
With hundreds if not thousands of Wearsiders once more finding their way into the home sections their cover was soon blown as they watched their heroes quickly setting about their already relegated hosts. Quickfire strikes from Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy gave the Black Cats control and in the second half there were further goals from Murphy, Ross Wallace and David Connolly. As if the scoreline wasn’t enough though, the cherry on the cake came when news started to filter through that rivals Birmingham City had slipped up at Preston North End – meaning the Lads now topped the table and were going up in style.
The title success and subsequent celebrations on the pitch and in the stands mean that Kenilworth Road will always have a place in Sunderland’s history. Tickets for this Saturday were once again at a premium, and those able to get one are hopeful of another day that they won’t want to forget.